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verbrechen

6 january 2019

Verbrechen means "crime" – or, German being what it is, "crimes"; the English translation opted for the singular, the French for the plural. Ferdinand von Schirach's collection of 11 "stories" (he uses the English word) examines what we consider to be a crime by offering 11 examples of crimes.

Axe-murdering your appalling wife? Exacting hideous revenge on people who stole a family heirloom? Drowning your disabled brother? Cheating the justice system by throwing up a squid-ink screen of mistaken family identities? Dismembering your prostitute pal's suddenly-deceased client? Bare-handedly killing two strangers who come up to you waving a knife and a baseball bat? Brutally killing some sheep – which your father promptly pays their owners for? Acting out when your employers give you the same mindless duty every day for decades? Robbing a bank so that you can go back to the family in Ethiopia that fate dragged you away from? Carving up your girlfriend's back with a Swiss-Army knife because you're so deeply into her that you'd like to eat her alive? (Actually I might draw the line there, myself.)

The longest story in the volume (though still brief at 32 pages) is the somewhat atypical "Summertime." This story verges – improbably, as its own narrator admits – on a kind of Perry-Mason moment. The crime here is murder, and there are for once no extenuating circumstances. But there is also no clear-cut evidence. Circumstance makes one man – the narrator's client – the most eligible for prosecution – unless our narrator can find the weak link in the chain of circumstance.

As that description suggests, our narrator is a defense attorney with a substantial file of bizarre cases. These may or may not be drawn from the real-life files of Ferdinand von Schirach, and one hopes they're highly embellished, if they are. Von Schirach would continue the series in Schuld a year later. I read Schuld first, and it's a better book, slightly more offbeat, slightly less sentimental and sensational. I hope to catch up with his subsequent career soon.

Von Schirach, Ferdinand. Verbrechen. 2009. München: Piper, 2018.

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